You’d be forgiven for not knowing that the 19th November is International Men’s Day. It is an annual celebration of what the organisers call “the contributions men make to society for the greater good of all.” To their dismay it does not receive the same attention as its counterpart, International Women’s Day, which in March was recognised by the launch of a new UN campaign to fight gender inequality.
For much of its history the Men’s Rights Movement has remained somewhat marginal. Whilst it is now global, it is difficult to identify any major shift in attitudes towards men’s issues as a result of their work.
On November 4th the Times of India published an article about a Men’s Rights Group in Nagpur who returned their marriage certificates, rendering them invalid, in protest against legislation which they saw as biased in favour of women. Examples cited were the Domestic Violence Act and a series of laws punishing rape. They believe that for decades the Indian government has been actively discriminating against them.
Last month, however, MP Philip Davies stood before a government select committee and proposed a House of Commons debate on men’s issues – such as high rates of mental illness, suicide, and homelessness – to coincide with the 19th November commemorations. Lately, discussions of this sort have gained some legitimacy, and in general, the ideas surrounding Men’s Rights Activism have edged into the centre ground.
Palatinate recently reported on Adam Frost’s attempt to have his Durham Men’s Issues Awareness Society ratified by the Durham Students’ Union, and how it was ironically rejected on the grounds that its aims were too similar to those of the Feminist Society, something which Frost refutes.
The Durham University Feminist Society does include a group of pro-feminist male members who meet regularly to discuss how men benefit from, and are limited by, patriarchy. For Frost the society does not provide sufficient room to debate issues affecting men. He wants his society to be open minded “instead of accepting dogma and refusing to listen to the other side of the story.”
This divide harks back to the origins of the Men’s Rights Movement. The Men’s Liberation Movement was a reaction to the popularisation of feminist theory in the 1970s – the group later split into the pro-feminist movement and the anti-feminist Men’s Rights Movement. This group focusses exclusively on areas where men are oppressed or discriminated against.
Palatinate asked finalist Adam Frost if his society distinguishes itself from the Men’s Rights Movement. He said he has a shared motivation with the Men’s Rights Movement and revealed that he “would identify as an MRA [Men’s Right’s Activist] if the majority of people hadn’t been lied to about them.”
So, is there scope to recognise International Men’s Day? Frost’s form of gender equality would certainly say so; he cites the 2012 study that saw poor white males achieve on average the lowest GCSE scores of any demographic in the UK. “I think there are some serious problems with the idea that our society is run by men for men,” he explains. “If that was the case, why would men be sent overseas to die in wars without their consent? Why would men make up 90% of the prison population? Wouldn’t women be punished more severely by the law?”
Unfortunately for the Men’s Issues Awareness Society, it appears that there won’t be a parliamentary debate on men’s discrimination come 19th November. Philip Davies’ proposal was met initially with laughter and MP Jess Phillips – the only woman on the panel – said the suggestion for a debate to honour gender equality was ironic given that in parliament “equality for women is still frankly a joke”. Phillips was later subjected to an overwhelming amount of online abuse; the most sinister threats called for her to be publicly raped. It seems that despite the protestations of the Men’s Rights Movement, feminism still has a bit of work to do.
Frost emphasises the role of choice in the gender equality battle. He suggests that much of what is perceived as gender imbalance is simply nature winning out over nurture. “To say that we live in a society that disadvantages women is entirely reductionist, and looks solely at one side of the coin,” he claims.
The Men’s Rights Movement at its core seems desperate to focus on the choices women make. For a movement dedicated to protecting and celebrating men, they spend a lot of time explaining why women are not subject to oppression. Which is a shame, because there is certainly room for a widespread men’s movement taking positive steps to readdress gender imbalance wherever it persists. Hopefully, the Durham pro-feminist ‘Yes All Men’ group can have this kind of positive influence.
We will almost certainly have to wait and see if the Men’s Issues Awareness Society’s claims come to fruition, and what effect they have – if any – on the problems facing male Durham students specifically. But for now it seems they pose no coherent threat to the work that Durham’s feminist groups undertake. Women, Adam informs us, “are autonomous beings capable of making their own decisions, after all.” Thankfully, this philosophy lets women choose to ignore much of what is claimed by the men’s rights movement.
Photograph: Peter Wright via Flickr